Having lived most of our lives in Miami, we were very interested in visiting Cuba when the isolated nation began to open up. Many of our friends visited and told us to “get there as soon as you can”. We cruised on the Veendam ship of Holland America Line, a company that has been cruising for 145 years. Most of our fellow travelers were veteran travelers and loyal to HAL. There were many features we enjoyed including workshops and lectures not offered on many cruise lines.
We stopped in Cienfuegos Cuba on the south coast. Its a small city settled by French people from Haiti and Louisiana. The architecture is beautiful but everything seemed in need of refurbishment. We got to see the Tomas Terry Theatre on Jose Marti Park which is being renovated in time for the city’s 200th anniversary next year. It was/will be beautiful and unique. We attended a chamber music performance with local musicians playing classical music with a Cuban twist. They were great. A highlight for many was a tour of the Botanic Gardens of Cienfuegos. The preserve was built by Harvard University in the early 1900s to research sugar production and many tropical species. We knew many of the plants of course but we’d never seen a Brazil Nut tree and its amazing pod. We had a fine lunch at a Spanish owned hotel with traditional moros and tostones and flan. The overall impression of Cuba is that time has stood still in Cuba. The old cars and old buildings make you feel like you are in 1959 again. People who own the old cars are called “believers” because so little of them is original. The lack of commercialism compared to the US is startling. But the people are friendly, optimistic and artistic. They are welcoming Americans on their own terms. We hope many more will visit and that relations will become more and more normal. While Cuba is opening up there are still only about 600,00 visitors from the US each year.
Our cruise actually began with a stop in Nassau Bahamas. We have been there many times and walked to the Queen’s Staircase. We also found the Bahamas Historical Society Museum open and had a nice visit with Andrea Major the director. The Pompey Museum is named after a courageous slave and housed in the oldest building in Nassau. It was built before 1769 and once hosted slave auctions. It now tells the story of slavery in the Bahamas.
We also stopped at Georgetown Grand Cayman. It had been many years since our last visit here and we enjoyed the town’s waterfront. The town library’s ceiling is built like an upside down ship. Tarpon were abundant right in the harbor.
After leaving Cuba our next stop was scheduled to be Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras. Alas, the winds were too high to make a safe approach and our Irish Captain Colm Ryan cancelled the stop with apologies.
We then anchored off Belize City in Belize formerly known as British Honduras. The city itself seemed pretty drab but we were off to Xunantunich, one of the great Mayan city-states. It is a mile from the Guatemalan border and in the jungle. We had to cross a river on a crank ferry to get to the site. Howler monkeys played in the trees. At the temple we were able to climb to the top led by a local guide who has been an archeologist there since the 80s. The views and stories were great.
A last highlight of the cruise was Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatan state. We reached it on an excursion from Playa del Carmen on a new expressway. Our Mayan guide told us the story of not only Chichen Itza but of the Mayan region. He told of the Spanish conquest and decimation of the native people and also told of what he called the second conquest when Spanish corporations came to the Yucatan coast to build resorts like Cancun and Playa del Carmen. All this with little to no benefit to the surviving Mayans. From 2002 to present Playa del Carmen grew from 22k people to 500k with Mayans a tiny minority.
The Temples at Chichen Itza are incredible works of astronomic brilliance, art and stonework. Their calendar is accurate to within 2 seconds annually of our calender. They thrived from about 600 to 1200 AD. Many believe they had help from aliens but we may never know since the Spaniards destroyed all but 4 of the thousands of books from the Mayan culture. “Thanks again Spain” says our Mayan guide. Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Holland America is a great cruise line and we enjoyed the Veendam as it was smaller (1200 passengers) than some of our recent ships. All cruise lines need to do more to prevent the spread of viruses especially in the winter season. The food was really good, service excellent, front office management excellent, boarding and port visits well managed. We will cruise with them again.